Monday musings on Australian literature: Writers’ letters and diaries

I am currently reading a book of selected letters, First things first, by Australian poet Kate Llewellyn. I’m loving it, so I thought that as a precursor to my review (which is a way off yet as I’ve only read a third), I’d do a Monday Musings on the published letters and diaries of Australian writers. Hmm, not “the” so much as “some”, I should say. And, I should also say that I haven’t read many.

But, I do enjoy reading letters and diaries. It comes, I think, of being a reader who reads more for character than plot. I have written several posts on Jane Austen’s letters which my local group read in sections over a few years. (My posts are listed under Jane Austen on my Author Index page). They were published after Austen’s death. Reading Lewellyn’s letters, I’m aware that she’s alive, and that many of her recipients still are too. It’s a brave thing, I think, to let these “private” communications be shared. Nettie Palmer prepared the extracts from her journal for publication, and recognised the challenges of publishing something that was initially intended only for herself. She says:

Many of the people mentioned in these pages are no longer alive, and as I could not ask all for consent to use their words or letters, I have not asked any. If my friends should think I have taken liberty with them … well, I should be sorry. They will believe nothing here was set down in malice, much in love and gratitude.

Most of the books I’ve listed, though, were published after the author’s death.

As I researched today’s post, I came across the Australian Government’s website on Australian literature. They mention the published letters of Gwen Harwood, which I will include in my little select list below. They include this description of her letters:

Spirited and witty, warm, reflective, at times enraged, often overcome by laughter, the letters are so varied that this large volume can be read as one might read a novel or an autobiography. It would be a pity just to dip in at random: this is the story of the making of a poet.

I’m not sure all collections of letters or diaries provide the story of the making of the writer involved, but they must give some insight into the person, their personality, interests, likes, loves and frustrations. So, here is a selection of published letters and diaries by Australian writers, ordered alphabetically by the name of the writer.

  • Franklin, Miles: The diaries of Miles Franklin, edited by Paul Brunton (2004). These diaries cover the period 1932 to 1954, and is enlightening about Australia’s literary life at the times. I’ve only dipped into it (oops) while doing other research, and look forward to reading more. Here, to give a taste, is an honest Franklin on Dame Mary Gilmore in 1947: “I called on Mary Gilmore. She is increasingly apocryphal in her assertions. Very against the British — an old snake really, seeing the way she touted for a British title …”
  • Harwood, GwenA Steady Storm of Correspondence: Selected Letters of Gwen Harwood 1943-1995, edited by Gregory Kratzmann (2001). See the quote above!
  • Llewellyn, Kate: First things first: Selected letters of Kate Llewellyn, 1977-2004, edited by Ruth Bacchus and Barbara Hill (2015). This is a lively, personal account of Llewellyn’s life, from what I’ve read so far. And it shows me the resilience you need to be a writer, given the very uncertain financial situation writers often find themselves in.
  • Palmer, Nettie: Nettie Palmer: her private journal ‘Fourteen years’, poems, reviews and literary essays (1988), edited by Vivian Smith. This is, really, an anthology, of various of Nettie Palmer’s writings, but it starts with Fourteen years which comprises extracts from Palmer’s journal from 1925 to 1936 and which was first published in Meanjin in 1948. Palmer prepared it for publication, and Smith writes in the introduction that, in arranging it, “notions of symmetry and design were of more importance to Nettie Palmer than an exact pocket diary account of those days”. So, perhaps, a diary that isn’t quite a diary?
  • Palmer, Vance and NettieLetters of Vance and Nettie Palmer 1915-1963, edited by Vivian Smith (1977). This is a selection of the “copious” letters the Palmers wrote to many people, including aspiring and established writers. The inside cover says that the “selection reveals the breadth of the Palmers’ interests and the generosity of their concern for young writers’ struggles, for the plight of Spain in the 1930s, for the problems of bringing up children, earning a living, and facing two world wars. The span of their letters provides an informed and lively perspective on this century. Through these day-to-day responses runs a constant theme: the need for Australians to assume a responsible national stance in politics, in public affairs and in the Palmers’ own profession, literature. They lament, in an entirely modern voice, the inconsecutive* nature of Australian culture, the derivative admirations of academics and the public, and the philistinism evident in so much of our national life”.
  • Wright, JudithWith love and fury: Selected letters of Judith Wright, edited by Patricia Clarke and Meredith McKinney (2006). This collection includes her 1945-46 correspondence with Jack McKinney, who became her husband, and with Queensland poet, Jack Blight. Co-editor and coincidentally Wright’s daughter, Meredith McKinney, says that the letters with Blight “constitute a running commentary on the Australian literary scene as well as what she was reading and thinking about poetry and writing in general”. Wright was an activist for the environment and indigenous rights, among other social issues, so her letters are sure to be enlightening.

I’ll leave it here, but have you noticed something? With the exception of Vance Palmer, these all belong to women. It’s easy to suggest that letter writing and journal-keeping have traditionally been the realm of women, but there have been men too, like Samuel Pepys, of course. I did look for diaries and letters by men but with little success. I’m hoping they do exist and that some readers here will tell me about them. Regardless, I’d love to know if you, too, enjoy reading writers’ letters and journals.

* I have no idea what this word means and wonder if it’s a typo – I quoted it from the National Library’s Catalogue quoting the book’s inside cover.

29 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Writers’ letters and diaries

  1. Much of the Heide artists’ correspondence still exists; I have a volume of John Reed’s collected letters somewhere in my higgledy-piggledy, apartment-wide pile.
    David Marr collated Patrick White’s correspondence at the end of his life. Much of it remained intact, but many of White’s correspondents heeded his urgings to destroy what letters of his they still had.
    Would it be crass of me to offer Monkey Grip as an example? Garner herself has admitted that her own diaries of the time provided the bulk of the material…

    • Rhetorically I wonder if it’s strange that we have more volumes of private prose by male artists than by male authors. White was the only writer I could think of as well, but artists — several. Donald Friend’s diaries are over the shops like a rash.

      A book of Henry Lawson’s letters came out in the 1970s though I don’t know if I’ve ever laid eyes on a copy. There was a Selected Letters of Manning Clark. (But why not Marcus Clarke, if we’re talking about Clark/es? The man died in 1881. He had to have written letters. What happened to them?)

      Not a man, but Christina Stead’s journals were published in two volumes during the … 1980s, I think; and her correspondence with her husband came out about a decade ago under the title Dearest Munx. The husband was a published author too, but those letters are probably the only thing he ever wrote that’s still in print.

      • (All right, the first two paragraphs of that comment don’t make sense together. I wrote, “White was the only author I could think of …” & then went on a bit and thought of some but didn’t go back and correct.)

      • Ah, interesting question re male artists, DKS.

        I didn’t come across the Lawson and Stead in my research … It’s a hard topic to research as the key words have such multiple connotations, so thanks for this.

        As I said to Glen, there are a lot of letters in libraries waiting for people to research, and perhaps publish as letters/journals rather than use for biographies, as the Llewellyn editors did.

    • Thanks Glen … Yes, I came across correspondence for a few artists. Re Patrick White, there are a lot of collections writers’ correspondence, like White’s, in libraries. But they’re all waiting for people to research them! Some of those researchers produce biographies, like Marr on Patrick White, but others do publish the letters and journals.

  2. It’s been a long time since I’ve read a book of letters–but I do own some I’ve yet to get to. Working on a 19th C memoir at the moment which spills over into the 20thC

  3. Thanks again, WG, for opening up such a topic. The letters of letters, so to speak. Endlessly fascinating, the diaries too. And such a field. I’ve dipped into the Donald Friend diary and absolutely fell in love with Christopher Isherwood’s which came out in the 1990s after his death. You could post a whole blog on the subject. I gave up writing a diary when I started being serious about fiction- felt it was taking up too much of my creative energy, not to mention my time, but took it up again years later, largely I think because I liked using a pen again. But that’s another subject.

    • Interesting points, Sarah. I find diaries to be a necessary evil, to be indulged in sparingly.

      If we’re opening it up beyond Australians (and even beyond writers?) I’ll toss in Kenneth Williams, Richard Burton, John Cheever and John Fowles. The latter two are fascinating, but also present themselves as a warning against famous people making their most private writings public…

      • I’m always happy for my Monday Musings to be opened up beyond Australians, Glen – partly because many readers here aren’t Australians and I don’t want them to feel excluded. I like these posts to be a springboard for all sorts of ideas and book talk. And anyhow, with this one, I did mention Jane Austen myself. Did Cheever and Fowles publish their own letters or did someone do it after their deaths?

    • Haha, Sarah, Letters of letters indeed. Yes, you could do a whole blog on the subject I agree. I have written diaries, and then not. I guess I’ve written them mostly when I’ve needed it for therapy! They are probably not something I’ll ever want to read again. These days, my blog and snail mail letters to my friend represent the some total of my personal reflections, such as they are!

  4. I really enjoyed reading your post. It has sparked some ideas for me in my own research – diaries & correspondence are a great way of reading observations on a time and place. Thank you!

  5. Jill Roe edited two volumes of Miles Franklin’s letters, My Congenials, and I read a really interesting collection of Henry Handel Richardson’s but that was from a library and I haven’t seen it for years.
    But my favourite ‘letters’ are Jane Austen’s Lady Susan, a novel in letters.
    As for inconsecutive, perhaps the writer feels that in Australian culture nothing follows from anything else

    • Ah, thanks Bill. That’s great to hear about letters of Henry Handel Richardson. In a library is a start!

      Epistolary novels – oh yes, another whole subject. I’ve read Lady Susan a couple of times, and did in fact review it on this blog last year.

      As for “inconsecutive”, yes, I’m thinking that it might be something like that, that nothing is coherent (yet).

      • I have a bit of a blind spot in regards to diaries/letters but I can certainly see their importance in understanding a wrter’s life/times. Of course the best of them are works of literature in themselves. I remember enjoying Harold Nicholson’s diaries a lot because they gave such an insight into the politics and society of mid 20th century in England. Oddly enough I remember the diary extracts in the 4 volume collected Orwell to be a little dissapointing. In Australia which writer’s diaries and letters are best known and celebrated?

        • I think, Ian, that some letters and diaries are really only of interest to people who love that particular writer, whereas others are more generally interesting. Jane Austen’s letters fall into the former, really, I think, because there’s a lot of chat about family, family friends, clothes, but there are treasures in there.

          As for which Australian writer’s diaries or letters are best known and celebrated, I’m not sure I can answer that. It’s not something I hear talked about enough, which suggests there’s no particular one or even two. But maybe another Aussie reading this will have a different point of view.

  6. I love diaries and letters! Letters are a genre and art all unto themselves and reading a collection of someone who understood that is such fun. Diaries are a little more difficult. There are those that are good because the person was interesting like Virginia Woolf, and were never written for publication. Then there are those that were written in view of being published, which, while still in the form of a diary, turn into a different kind of beast, like Anais Nin’s.

    • Yes, I thought of you and you letter reading project of a couple of years ago. It was a bit of a project wasn’t it?

      You make a good point about diaries re the consciousness of a potential (or definite) reader. Even with my own little one I often thought about who might read it after I’ve gone. Should I be careful about what I say, not that I was saying much about other people but about my own feelings at a particular time that might not represent me at another time. Did I want those to be known even if it were 40 or 50 or more years after the event OR closer to the event if some prying, say children’s, eyes found them while they were young and impressionable!

  7. I’ve read a lot of settler and British officer journals, and some correspondence, from the time of first settlement, Sue, but not much in terms collections of correspondence. I think the letters of Henry Handel Richardson mentioned above would be great as I’ve enjoyed her writing, know a bit about her, and think she was amazing. So thanks for the prompt – I’ll add it to the TBR list! Cheers, John

    • Thanks John … interesting. I’m aware of a lot of journals from the 19th and early twentieth centuries here, but I haven’t really read any of them, though I’ve read some great histories based on them. They are a great resource aren’t they?

  8. I have the book Australian Literature by Cecil Hadgraft, published by Heinemann, reprinted in 1962. I found a hand written note to Cec, from Craig thanking him for lending the books. He wrote on the note and in the book suggested alterations; I gather for a Second edition to be printed in 1964. I find this all rather fascinating and would love to know who Craig is and was it a genuine request from Cecil Hadgraft for him to suggest alterations? Notes and letters are so intimate and when you read author letters they do become more personal.

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